Welcome to Marathon Man, a new column at Movies.com where writer Jacob Hall attempts to marathon a sanity-questioning number of films and tries to analyze them in the process.
My friend and fellow Movies.com writer John Gholson is a horror movie aficionado. And by horror movie aficionado, I mean his knowledge of the genre makes what I know look small, pathetic and just a little bit embarrassing. That's why I always take notice when he recommends a horror movie. More to the point, that's why I made sure I was in attendance for his yearly all-day horror movie marathon, dubbed "Not Quite Halloween."
I had seen none of the films on his schedule. Therefore, it was my duty to spend the next fifteen hours rectifying that.
For the purposes of this marathon, I decided to break each film down into four categories: The Threat (Who is the monster/villain of the film and what does he/she/it want?), The Threatened (Who are our heroes and what do they have to gain and lose in their surely terrifying struggle with Evil?), How It Goes Down (How the film is executed in terms of tone and story) and finally, Thoughts (Where I'll break out an extra opinion or two).
The marathon began at 11:00am...
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
The Threat: Dracula, having been smuggled into the United States, teams up with a female mad scientist to bring Frankenstein's Monster back to life as part of an incredibly vague but surely eeevil plot to do, er, something. Their plot involves the monster getting a new brain…a brain that can be easily controlled and manipulated...
The Threatened: How about the brain of the bumbling, buffoonish and generally childlike Lou Costello? Along with his smarter, meaner partner-in-antics, Bud Abbott, Costello works for the shipping agency that inadvertently smuggles Dracula and company into town. Soon enough, the two find themselves way over their heads, teaming up with Lawrence "The Wolf Man" Talbot and a painfully bland but awfully pretty insurance investigator to save the day.
How It Goes Down: The choice to make an Abbott and Costello comedy co-starring the classic Universal monsters back when they were still relatively new on the scene feels like an odd choice right off the bat, resulting in an uneven first half. As funny as the film gets -- and it gets very, very funny -- it can't help but sting a little that the film is using these icons as the butt of slapstick jokes. However, the film's second half strikes a perfect tone, upping the atmosphere and the creepiness to a pitch that perfectly complements the comedy. By the time we've reached the insane final fifteen minutes, we're no longer watching an Abbot and Costello movie: we're watching Abbott and Costello barely survive an actual Universal monster movie. Placing these silly characters in a climax with life and death stakes elevates the film from a fun distraction to something pretty special.
Thoughts: I'll be the first to admit that Abbott and Costello's comedy seems pretty quaint by modern standards (you can probably blame the countless bad imitators as well), but there's a reason these guys were so beloved. Their chemistry is second to none and while I may not have been laughing out loud too much, I was definitely smiling throughout. It's helpful that both of them find perfect straight men in Bela Lugosi (as Dracula of course) and Lon Chaney Jr. (as the Wolf Man, duh), who play these classic characters with the same level of commitment they've given the roles before.
Terror in the Aisles (1984)
The Threat: A collection of great and often obscure killers and monsters from several decades of horror and "terror" cinema, ranging from psychics with a bone to pick with the prom to Gregory Peck's Satanic son to a flock of merciless birds.
The Threatened: An equally great and obscure collection of the countless men, women and children who met their brutal end at the hands/claws/knives/psychic brain waves of the people/things listed above.
How It Goes Down: When I made these categories at the beginning of the marathon, I didn't realize that one of the films on the schedule was a non-narrative. Terror in the Aisles isn't a documentary per se, but a "clip show" movie essentially hosted by the great Donald Pleasance and not-as-great-but-perfectly-adequate-here Nancy Allen. Produced in 1984, this is an obscenely well-edited whirlwind tour that examines why we love being scared in the movie theater. Clips aren't selected at random, but flow from scene to scene to make thematic points (the opening sequence of characters preparing, hiding and barricading is a beautifully chilling way to get things started). There may be no plot and the actual observations by our hosts are Freshman Psychology 101, but as far as visual horror experiences go, this is unmatched.
Additional Thoughts: Man, Terror in the Aisles is a perfect party movie. Put in on in a room full of horror buffs and watch everyone try to identify every clip and count how many movies they've seen. Of course, there are big ones like Jaws, Psycho and Halloween, but they also manage to sneak in early David Cronenberg films like The Brood. Heck, I made myself proud by being the only one in the room to recognize Vice Squad. If anything, Terror in the Aisles made me aware of a handful of films that I just have to see now, including a 1982 film called Alone in the Dark that isn't available on DVD and sounds like 18 buckets of amazing crazy.
Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974)
The Threat: Someone or -- dun dun dun -- something is stalking an isolated village in 18th century England, targeting young women and draining them of their youth. Could it be…a vampire? Well, yeah. Of course. What else could it be? Look at the title.
The Threatened: In addition to a town full of superstitious, God-fearing villagers? There's the dashing Captain Kronos, an expert swordsman with zen-like abilities to slice and dice his way through countless foes, his hunchbacked professor assistant/confidant and the gorgeous young woman they've picked up along the way. Of course, it would be tough to call them the threatened in this case: they're vampire hunters and they're very good at their job.
How It Goes Down: Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter may have been one of the last Hammer horror films, but it feels right at home with the company's other productions. The budget may be low, but film is patient with its plot and its characters, taking its time, slowly building a sense of dread and featuring a genuinely compelling Who-Is-The-Vampire mystery, filled with twists and red herrings. We've seen plenty of sword-wielding badass vampire hunters these days (too many, actually), but Captain Kronos may very well be the first. The presence of this kind of character in a film this stately is a revelation.
Additional Thoughts: I've only seen a few Hammer films, so I'm by no means an expert, but this feels like upper tier Hammer. This is easily one of my favorite films of the entire marathon: beautifully shot, creepy as hell and earning its badass heroic moments through deliberate pacing. Kronos doesn't take out his sword very often, but when he does, it's on. Every action beat works like gangbusters because so much of the film is Kronos doing his best to avoid direct violence. The film was a financial disaster and plans to continue Kronos and his teams' adventures on television were shelved, but I like to imagine an alternate universe where this cast hunted vampires on a weekly basis for seven season. I know I would've watched it.
The Sentinel (1977)
The Threat: An apartment that's actually the gateway to Hell. The ghosts of various serial killers who want said gateway to Hell. The army of demons that pour out of the gateway to Hell in the film's climax. And also kinda' sorta' the Catholic Church, but they're not actually in league with the gateway to Hell. Because that would be silly.
The Threatened: "An elegant, fully furnished room for only $500 a month? Sign me up!" says the gorgeous but psychologically unsound model who moves into the apartment/gateway to Hell. The forces of Hell need her to be a little less living. The Catholic Church needs her to become a Sentinel, a lone warrior to guard this gateway from anything getting in or out. Whoops!
How It Goes Down: For it's first thirty minutes or so, The Sentinel is gloriously silly, heaping on one bizarre moment after another. As our heroine explores her new building and meets her odd and sinister (and undead) neighbors, you think you've discovered the greatest camp classic since The Manitou. Do you like wacky, cat-loving magicians? Do you like evil lesbians who masturbate threateningly in your direction? Do you like surreal birthday parties thrown for a cat? As John described it: "This is accidental David Lynch!" The film loses its wacky ways in the saggy second act, becoming a painfully dull supernatural procedural for forty five minutes, which is the only thing keeping me from declaring The Sentinel one of the Best Things Ever. Things return to Crazy Town for the final ten minutes, but it's not enough to rescue the film, which is a total shame.
Additional Thoughts: Say what you want about The Sentinel (I just did), but director Michael Winner assembled himself one helluva cast, which has only gotten even nuttier since many of the bit players have gone on to have iconic careers. Although the lead actress vanished into thin air (and rightfully so because she's terrible), the cast is filled out Ava Gardner as a real estate agent, Chris Sarandon as the heroine's boyfriend, John Carradine as the current Sentinel, Jose Ferrer as a prier who shows up and does nothing in particular, Eli Wallach as a detective, a painfully young Christopher Walken as his partner (only one line!), Jerry Orbach as a jerk commercial director, Beverly D'Angelo as one of the evil lesbians, William Hickey as the wacky magician, Jeff Goldblum as a photographer and Tom Berenger and Nana Visitor in tiny walk-on roles. Most of them are wasted.
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
The Threat: Dr. Moreau, a megalomaniacal mad scientist with a god complex and something to prove to the sane scientists who kicked him out of Europe, is threat enough on his own. Give him an army of half man, half animal mutants that he built in a laboratory on his private island and you have a host you don't want to end up stranded with after your boat sinks.
The Threatened: It's one thing for a tough sailor to contend with the certifiably insane Dr. Moreau, but what about his fiancee, who has tracked him down and has come to his rescue? An island full of sexually frustrated animal-men is no place for a dame.
How It Goes Down: An adaptation of HG Wells' classic novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, Island of Lost Souls is bleak and brisk, tackling a lot of grim ideas head-on throughout its 71 minute running time in a period when grim ideas usually ended up on the cutting room floor. The film is almost suffocating with its palpable dread, slowly unveiling what Dr. Moreau is up to and then letting us watch as one thing after another goes horribly wrong. To watch Island of Lost Souls is watch the grandfather of Jurassic Park and other science-based horror stories: without boundaries, science can create problems that escalate quickly and cannot be contained. Your enjoyment of this film depends entirely on how intrigued you are to see the creation of what's now a tired trope. However, no film has ever done this trope better.
Additional Thoughts: I'm a sucker for mad scientists in movies. I'm an even bigger sucker for mad scientists in movies who do what they do not because they have a grand goal in mind, but just because they can. In the pantheon of great cinematic mad scientists, Laughton's Dr. Moreau must surely rank near the top. Rotund and charismatic, Moreau is not the angry shut-in that most mad scientists tend to be in films. He's delighted that he has a guest, delighted because it gives him an audience and an unwilling participant in a few dark endeavors that he hasn't dared try until now. He's a showman and the center of his own personal universe -- his joviality barely hides the sociopath within, the man who sees every person around him as a pawn and examines any situation from one perspective: how could he benefit? Total selfishness plus an unnerving lack of remorse for anything with a pulse is a terrifying combination. Laughton sells it like the true master thespian he was. What a performance.
The Threat: For reasons unknown, an entire town full of ordinary people got up and started walking into the wilderness. Many were found dead. Even more were never found at all. That was seventy years ago. Whatever made all of these people get up and start walking toward an uncertain fate is still around. Although the real villain here is the film itself, which is a vague and frustrating and waste of time. Zing!
The Threatened: The audience? Zing, again! Nah, the film follows a team of investigators who choose to the follow the "Yellowbrickroad" that so many townsfolk vanished on so many decades ago. Why? For science, that's why. There's about ten of them but they're all blending together in my mind now. Let's see, there's that one girl and that tough guy and the nervous guy and that other guy...
How It Goes Down: Once our merry band of heroes is on the path to an uncertain fate, it isn't long before they start hearing music, which is odd, considering that they're out in the middle of the woods. As they trek onward, the music grows louder and stronger and begins to drive each of them insane. Suicides and homicides happen. People bicker about whether or not they should turn back. The body count rises. People wander through the woods, not accomplishing much. We reach a conclusion that deliberately answers nothing -- it's not a conclusion that feels like "We want to keep what's been going on here shrouded in creepy mystery" but rather "Nanananananana! You wanted answers? Tough! Here's some incomprehensible nonsense that we're passing off some kind of metaphor for something that we never even touched on!" For a film this unrelentingly grim in its presentation, this kind of conclusion is just plain insulting.
Additional Thoughts: Yellowbrickroad has the distinct honor of being the only film of the marathon that I flat-out hated. None of the characters are clearly defined and the cast is so large that no one manages stand out as particularly interesting. With no characters to care about, the mystery at the center of the film (what is this music and why is it forcing this group to move forward?) has to be the sole thing to maintain our interest, but the film has no interest in exploring this. Rather, if spends time watching the psychological breakdowns of the various cast members, who, if you'll recall, are not in the least bit interesting. I'll give Yellowbrickroad this much: there are stretches where the menacing atmosphere is undeniably effective and the cinematography is surprisingly pretty for an independent horror movie, but it's all in service of a painfully insulting story. Remember the ending of Lost and how it was only tolerable because you loved the characters? Yeah. Remove that "loved the characters" part and you'll understand exactly why this movie is so incredibly frustrating. And while I'm here: for a film that's technically competent, there's a special effects shot involving a character on the edge of a cliff that is poor, so shameful, I'm shocked that anyone with any experience near a movie camera thought it was okay.
The Raven (1935)
The Threat: Dr. Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi) saves a young woman after she's nearly killed in a car accident. Vollin is rather taken with her, but she refuses his advances since she has a fiancee and the doctor is a middle-aged weirdo with and Edgar Allan Poe fixation and a basement full of torture devices. Naturally, as middle-aged weirdos with Edgar Allan Poe fixations and basements full of torture devices do, he plots to teach her a lesson.
The Threatened: Technically, I could talk about the young woman who Vollin wants to kill and/or romance, but she's a blank slate and her fiancee is a bit of an elitist jerk who probably deserves a death-by-Lugosi. So, let's talk about the real hero of The Raven, the guy who has the bulk of our sympathy: Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff), a career criminal who comes to Vollin to have his memorably ugly face modified so he can escape the law. So Vollin puts him under the knife and makes him even uglier, promising to only fix him when he's killed the young woman and her family.
How It Goes Down: If you approach The Raven as a straight-up horror film -- and considering that it takes its title from Poe and stars two incredible horror icons, that's the natural instinct -- you'll probably be disappointed. The Raven is not scary and Karloff's post-surgery make-up is laughable even by the standards of the time. Seriously. It's really, really bad folks. However, The Raven is unexpectedly hilarious and I'm fairly certain that all of the laughs are completely intentional, especially since they all stem from the film's characters and pitch-black world view. Ultimately, this is the story of how Bela Lugosi waltzes into the lives of a group of people and proceeds to torment them in unreasonable, over-the-top ways, all in the name of (depending on his insane whims at the moment) romance or revenge. Lugosi chews scenery as Vollin, playing silly character with a lip-smacking hugeness. In contrast. Karloff is quiet, subtle and infinitely sad, giving a performance that is realistically pathetic and slightly heartbreaking. How much you enjoy The Raven will depend on how much you enjoy the sadistic comedy of a wacky evil doctor finding new and inventive ways to ruin the life of an ugly sad sack.
Additional Thoughts: The immediate appeal of The Raven (which, by the way, really has nothing at all to do with the poem) is watching Lugosi and Karloff go head-to-head. Despite having such different styles, the two gel onscreen and have a wonderfully antagonistic chemistry. History has shown that Karloff is the better actor, able to play a wider variety of cinematic monsters and anti-heroes while giving even the simplest of characters a certain degree of humanity, but his humanistic approach is the perfect foil to Lugosi, the Abbott to his Costello, if you will. Although the story is paper thin, their interactions elevate cheap junk into highly entertaining cheap junk and the 61 minute running time ensures that The Raven never overstays its welcome.
Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned (1980)
The Threat: Exactly who's the Threat and who's the Threatened depends on perspective, no? Dracula may be the Prince of Darkness, sucking the blood of innocent victims and stealing Satan's wife-to-be at the altar (seriously), but he's a good guy at heart who falls in love, starts a family and decides that he just wants to be left alone. Satan may be the most evil being in the universe, but Dracula stole his wife! Of course he's going to want revenge! Meanwhile, it's natural to sympathize with the team of vampire hunters who want to kill Dracula (especially since two of them are the descendants of original Dracula heroes Van Helsing and Jonathan Harker), but Dracula is a loving husband and father now. There are plenty of things wrong with Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned (oh boy, that's an understatement), but providing the audience with an interesting mix of sympathy and disgust for every party involved is not one of them.
The Threatened: Dracula, his wife Dolores (!), his infant superhero son Janus (!!), Satan and the human hunters all find themselves at each others' throats throughout the course of the film.
How It Goes Down: Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned is a 1980 Japanese anime based on a 1970s Marvel comic book called Tomb of Dracula. Yes, that's an exceptionally odd pedigree that combines three distinct tones that normally have no business belonging together. There's the creepy, horrific nature of a character like Dracula. There are all kinds of superheroics and pulpy battle scenes that feel like they were torn right out of a comic book (the film treats Dracula like a superhero!). Finally, there's the obvious Japanese influence, which extends beyond the low quality animation and the infects the entire tone: the film is nonsensical, perverse and goofy in a manner that only anime can achieve. The clash of tones creates a film that feels like nothing else, never becoming a good movie in a traditional sense but never, EVER becoming anything remotely close to dull. The plotting is loose, ignoring any kind of cohesive plot in favor of a series episodic vignettes. This is the kind of film where Dracula fights his dead infant son (who has been resurrected by God to destroy his father) by the halfway point and faces down Lucifer himself in an epic clash with thirty minutes remaining -- just when you think the film has hit its climax, you realize it has another mind-melting act up its sleeve.
Additional Thoughts: I loved Dracula, Sovereign of the damned. I loved every insulting, stupid, clever, amazing, hilarious, soap opera-y, odd and blazingly original moment of it. The film is a fever dream cooked up by a twelve year old raised on Universal monster movies, Dragonball Z and American comic books. It's tasteless, noisy and nonsensical, but it's endlessly clever, epic and, in its own simplistic way, slightly moving in how it depicts an infamous monster's attempt to break free from his evil ways, only to find his hundreds of years of monstrous deeds pull him back in. It's a big, weird movie, the type of big and weird that can only be achieved through animation and could only get animated in Japan, a country that's inhaled American culture and does a fascinating job of twisting it into something new and unexpected…and oftentimes awful. Man, Dracula, Sovereign of the damned is awful…but it's so good.
Greatest Threat: Charles Laughton as Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls. A tremendous performance and quite possibly the greatest movie mad scientist of all time.
Worst Threat: Whatever the hell the threat was in Yellowbrickroad. Seriously. Can someone tell me what was going on here? Anyone?
Greatest Threatened: Horst Janson as Captain Kronos in Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. An ex-soldier turned vampire hunter whose incredibly British toughness is accentuated by what appears to be Samurai training? Hell, yeah.
Worst Threatened: Whats-her-face in The Sentinel. If I IMDB's her name, I'd probably get "Blandy McWooden Bore."
Best Film: Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. Is this the secret father of the horror action film? It sure feels like it.
Worst Film: Yellowbrickroad. A well-made mess that offers nothing to chew on and nothing to invest in...and that special effects shot by the cliff makes me lose hair every time I think about it.
1. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter
2. Island of Lost Souls
3. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
4. Terror in the Aisles
5. Dracula, Sovereign of the Damned
6. The Raven
7. The Sentinel